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Many make the mistake of thinking barbecue is simply a flavor or sauce. But barbecue is actually a cooking technique that prides itself on cooking low and slow over a smoldering fire, flavoring meat of all kinds with its legendary smoke—and one of its most iconic dishes is smoked brisket.
When we took on the challenge of making the ultimate smoked brisket (see the recipe) here at TT, we were venturing into uncharted waters. The first step was begging some of our favorite barbecue experts to share their secrets to success (we even resorted to stalking some of them last weekend at the Big Apple Barbecue).
Much like us, Steven Raichlen, author of Project Smoke, had his first experiences with brisket strictly in the Jewish braise department. “I grew up on braised brisket Eastern European-style, with apricots, prunes and onions,” he tells us. “So my first Texas-style brisket (at Bodacious Barbecue in Longview, Texas) came as a revelation. I didn’t try smoking my own brisket until I was in my 40s. Now, our Rosh Hashanah brisket is Texas-style.”
Surprisingly enough, he wasn’t the only BBQ master to get a late start to the brisket game. “You didn’t find them in the Deep South in supermarkets very often, and if we ever ate brisket, it was ground up into hamburger meat at a restaurant,” Myron Mixon, barbecue world champion and host of BBQ Pitmasters, says. “I taught myself how to cook brisket when I started competing seriously on the barbecue circuit, by studying the meat and paying close attention to how other people I respected were handling it.”
We did the same thing, picking up tips along the way to pass on to you. Now just throw your meat onto the smoker for eight hours (no big deal), and you’ll have a tender smoked brisket covered in a spicy rub that’s begging to be sliced over white bread and doused in barbecue sauce.
The world is flat. If you didn’t know the different parts of the brisket, it’s OK. Neither did we. “Butcher shops and groceries usually cut briskets up into two pieces: The flat cut comes from the cow’s belly, and the point cut is near the foreshank,” Mixon explains. “Both have pros and cons: The first cut is evenly shaped and lean; the second cut is fattier and tougher, but has more flavor.”
“Always use quality meat,” Scott Roberts, owner of Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas, adds. “The cheaper cuts are tough and will stay tough.”
While our experts are smoking whole 16-pound briskets, we chose to use the flat. It’s even thickness makes for easier cooking and a manageable eight hours of smoking compared to the time required for an entire brisket.
Rub-a-dub-dub. Our brisket is covered in a spice rub of salt, pepper, Aleppo chile flakes, brown sugar, garlic powder and cumin. The result is a spicy coating with just a touch of sweetness. All of the experts we chatted with tend to keep their rub simple, too, with salt, pepper and cayenne or chile flakes. In the end, the rub should only complement the true flavor: the smoke.
The temp test. Raichlen warned us about the “stall” that happens when smoking brisket, so there’s no need to fear if this happens to you. “If you follow the internal temperature of the brisket, after about six hours or so, you’ll notice that the temperature stops climbing—it may even dip,” he explains. “It will do this for an hour or more. Don’t worry. What’s happening is that as the liquid on the surface evaporates, it cools the brisket. Just keep at it—eventually the temperature will start climbing again and the brisket will reach smoky perfection.”
Where there’s smoke. “It’s all about patience,” Raichlen advises—but you also have to be attentive. You want to keep the temperature steady around 250 degrees, adding wood as needed to maintain a steady stream of smoke.
But even when your brisket gets to around 200 degrees and you pull it, you better let the meat rest. And not just for 10 minutes, for an entire hour. It’s crucial if you want the meat to be juicy.
After cooking it for eight hours, what’s another 60 minutes?
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